Existing drug could protect against sore mouth after radiotherapy

In collaboration with the Press Association

An existing drug, used to stop transplanted organs being rejected, could prevent a common side effect of radiotherapy for head and neck cancers, according to US research in mice.

The results of the study suggest that the drug rapamycin (also called Sirolimus) protects healthy stem cells in the mouth from the effects of radiation, so these cells can continue repairing tissue.

This in turn can prevent painful inflammation of the mouth – called mucositis.

Radiotherapy is a widely used and often effective treatment for cancers of the head and neck. But it can sometimes affect healthy tissue in the mouth and lead to mucositis - where a patient's mouth becomes sore and uncomfortable.

J Silvio Gutkind and his team from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research in the US found that mice treated with rapamycin during radiation treatment did not develop mucositis.

Gutkind said: “We hope that these findings can be translated rapidly into the clinic. Mucositis prevention would have a remarkable impact on the quality of life and recovery of cancer patients and at the same time would reduce the cost of treatment,” he said.

Rapamycin is being tested in clinical trials for the prevention and treatment of various cancers and other conditions.

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK said: “Radiotherapy is an important and effective part of treatment for many cancer patients, but it is not without side effects. Mucositis - soreness inside the mouth - is a side effect of radiotherapy to the head and neck.  It can sometimes be severe, affecting quality of life and making it much harder to eat.

“If this lab work can be translated into an effective treatment, then many people could be spared from this debilitating side effect.”

But he added that an approved treatment would still be a few years away.

Copyright Press Association 2012


  • Iglesias-Bartolome, R., Patel, V., Cotrim, A., Leelahavanichkul, K., Molinolo, A., Mitchell, J. & Gutkind, J. . (2012). mTOR Inhibition Prevents Epithelial Stem Cell Senescence and Protects from Radiation-Induced Mucositis, Cell Stem Cell, 11 (3) 414. DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2012.06.007